Elections in Malaysia: “Ubah” you can believe in?

The Economist
May 4th 2013 | PENANG |From the print edition

“NO TO racism, no to corruption,” bellows Anwar Ibrahim from a stage in front of 50,000 delirious supporters, braving heavy rain to acclaim their idol in Penang. It is the last week of campaigning before Malaysia’s general election on May 5th and the leader of the opposition has been criss-crossing the country to shore up his support and make inroads into government territory. The task before Mr Anwar (pictured) is one of the most daunting in the annals of modern democracy: to unseat the world’s longest continually elected governing coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN). It has ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957.

He will never have a better chance than now. In the latest poll, in 2008, Mr Anwar’s Pakatan Rakyat coalition won five out of 12 state contests and for the first time robbed BN of its two-thirds majority in parliament. This time it could be closer. Mr Anwar’s rallying-cry of “ubah”, meaning “change”, has captured a widespread feeling among younger, mostly urban and increasingly affluent voters that their country requires fundamental restructuring to break out of the “middle-income trap”, to move away from the race-based politics of BN, and to become a modern democracy. No fewer than 2.6m new voters have registered (out of a total of 13.3m). Their tweets and texts will have a vital say in the outcome of the election.

Mr Anwar’s problem, though, is that the prime minister, Najib Razak, is wooing exactly the same voters by campaigning for much the same vision—a “transformation” he calls it—and he is doing it even more effectively. Over the past two years Mr Najib has repealed many oppressive colonial-era laws, for instance, and encouraged private-sector business with his Economic Transformation Programme. His argument is that if voters want more change then they should stick with the incumbent. He is embellishing this message with rallies featuring pop and television stars, aimed at his target audience.

But BN is trying to have it both ways. To balance this appeal to the young, it is simultaneously running an almost separate campaign to bolster its older ethnic Malay base. The dominant party of the BN coalition is the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), founded to uphold the rights of the majority Malays (about 67% of the population) over the minorities of Chinese (25%) and ethnic Indians (7%). UMNO forced through the affirmative-action policies for Malays in the early 1970s. These have since been watered down, but are still widely resented, even by some Malays. Indeed, Mr Anwar’s main target in this campaign is the corruption and racism produced by these policies.

Mr Najib is the leader of UMNO but has been wooing younger, more liberal voters by further dismantling the system of Malay privileges. Out in the countryside, however, UMNO is conducting a very different campaign to scare voters away from the Pakatan and reassure the party’s base—older rural Malays known as bumiputra (“sons of the soil”)—that UMNO will continue to champion Malay rights. Mahathir Mohamad, an 87-year-old former prime minister and stalwart supporter of Malay privileges, has been stoking up the Malay heartlands, interrupting his campaign only to attend the funeral in London of Margaret Thatcher.

In particular he has been campaigning alongside leaders of the extremist Perkasa organisation. Founded in 2009, it claims a membership of 300,000 and is against any erosion of Malay privileges. It has often been accused of racism and has been officially disowned by UMNO, yet experts reckon that about 80% of its members also belong to the party. Mr Mahathir’s cultivation of Perkasa should increase Malay support for UMNO, which could be crucial. Yet his strategy also gives the organisation plausible deniability.

The overall effect is that it will be as hard as ever for Pakatan to win extra votes in the rural areas it needs to win power. Having won 82 seats in 2008, Pakatan must pick up at least ten more in each of the states of Sabah, Sarawak and Johor, all BN strongholds, to stand any chance of getting a majority in the 222-seat parliament. It is a tall order.

There are also real questions about the integrity of the poll itself. In the crucial battleground state of Selangor, for instance, the Pakatan state government dissected the register and found that 27% of newly registered voters (more than 134,000 of them) could not be identified—raising suspicions that they are “phantom voters”.

For the veteran Mr Anwar the election is a final fling. He has promised he will retire if he loses.

  1. #1 by boh-liao on Saturday, 4 May 2013 - 11:04 am

    YES, YES, YES – dis is MENTAL REVOLUTION n birth of rakyat n voters’ belief dat “WE R d BOSSES, we CHOOSE our politicians as OUR SERVANTS, NOT as our political MASTERS

    所有选民都有自由投票的权利, 敢敢投票投票给 DAP/PAS/PKR!

    Show UmnoB/BN dat they r RUBBISH n they hv ruined dis nation by incessantly harping on racial divide, racial violence, n religious violence during every GE to frighten voters in order 2 hang on 2 power 2 ENRICH themselves through corrupt practices

    ENUF! Ini kali lah, HABU UBAH! ABCD!

    UmnoB/BN hv no idea – n in d last 5 years, they hv been PUSHED by PR 2 do things dat they normally would not do, APING what PR initiated

    Dumbo AhCheatKor wasted so much of our $$$$ on foreigners 2 come out with what he thought was a winnable slogan: “1 Malaysia“, always pointing his corrupt n bloood-tainted finger 2 d sky (n all UmnoB/BN idiots also ape him)

    Really, if he truly believes in “1 Malaysia“, he should just dissolve UmnoB/BN n join DAP which has since day 1 declared n practised “MALAYSIAN Malaysia” which is 1 Malaysia

    AhCheatKor shameless n idiot – no wonder dis nation is in a mess
    TIME 2 CHANGE – 505, TOMORROW, c’mon rakyat n voters, let’s us DECIDE OUR DESTINY
    505, VOTE 2 CHANGE; 506, NEW PR GOMEN
    COME, join d CHANGE movement, change 4 d BETTER

    Not easily done, cos UmnoB/BN r certain 2 CHEAT big 2molo with d help of EC
    We NEED a HUGE huge MARGIN of victory 4 PR candidates 2 NEGATE all d dirty tricks used by UmnoB/BN, EC
    So, get every1 U know 2 JUST VOTE 4 PR, JUST DO IT!
    Every vote COUNTS

    Dis will do UmnoB/BN a lot of good – 4 their members 2 reflect n 2 realise dat they r misled by racist, corrupt, self-enriching “leaders” n 2 kick out them out
    As a group of scholars said: “给国阵一个在野机会” Give UmnoB/BN a chance 2 b d opposition in our parliament

  2. #2 by sheriff singh on Saturday, 4 May 2013 - 11:39 am

    One day more.

    One day more to bury BN
    One day more for injustices to end.

    One day more to Victory
    One day more when we bury tyranny.

    One day more to go vote for freedom
    One day more to achieve true democracy.

    One day more to wipe out the BN gloom
    One day more when the Pakatan flowers bloom.

    One day more.

  3. #3 by boh-liao on Saturday, 4 May 2013 - 12:13 pm

    Lunar calendar’s 五月五, 端午节, 纪念屈原, 纪念伍子胥 (弃暗投明), 爱国驱邪 UmnoB/BN

  4. #4 by Godfather on Saturday, 4 May 2013 - 12:23 pm

    Excerpt of a radio interview with Najib:

    DJ: your administration is plagued with allegations of corruption.

    Najib: janji ditepati.

    DJ: Taib Mahmud shows open defiance in the wake of corruption evidence against him and his family.

    Najib: rakyat didahulukan.

    DJ: what about allegations of phantom voters ?

    Najib: economic transformation programmes.

    DJ: why does BN openly support racists like Ibrahim Ali and Zulkifli Noordin?

    Najib: Salam 1Malaysia

    DJ: why do you shy away from debating the head of Opposition ?

    Najib: all NKRAs achieved.

    DJ: (shrugs shoulders) ladies and gentlemen, the caretaker prime minister of Malaysia and an economics graduate of Nottingham University.

  5. #5 by on cheng on Saturday, 4 May 2013 - 8:49 pm

    Tell Chinese Islam country, tell Malay Christian country, how can anyone trust such party which tell 2 different stories ? Just throw such najis party OUT !

  6. #6 by boh-liao on Saturday, 4 May 2013 - 10:08 pm

    Did AhCheatKor GRADUATE fr Nottingham Uni?

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